“The business of journalists is to distort the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread, or for what is about the same — his salary. You know this, and I know it; and what foolery to be toasting an “Independent Press”! We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are jumping-jacks. They pull the string and we dance. Our time, our talents, our lives, our possibilities, are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”
This well-known quote by John Swinton, who was from 1860 – 1870 the Editor in Chief of the New York Times, came to mind again as the Sunday Times this week made a selective, self-serving, apology about some very prominent front-page stories that they now claim they got wrong. These ‘wrong stories’ they say they own up to are the reports on the Cato Manor ‘death squad’, the South African Revenue Service ‘rogue unit’, and the Zimbabwean renditions. With regards to these three stories, the Sunday Times claims that they have been deliberately ‘miss-lead’ and ‘manipulated’ by sources that apparently had a deliberate agenda to promote certain objectives, and to discredit specific people.
With the zeal of the recently converted the editor of the Sunday Times, Bongani Siqoko, announced that they will return all the awards and prize money that were presented to its reporters for these stories. These steps are presented as acts of contrition and cleansing, but they actually raise more questions, than provide clarity.
Evidently, by the Sunday Times own admission, it has been a useful tool for manipulating public opinion. By implication, it publishes stories not first and foremost on the merits of their facts, but on the basis of how it will influence perceptions and general public opinion to advance particular causes and the interests of certain powerful people and their power blocks.
It operates first and foremost as a propaganda platform, rather than a touchstone of truthful reporting. Facts do not have any integrity of their own but are coloured and manipulated as conveyors of selective and biased opinion. Well, once that is the reason for your existence, ‘manipulation’, (or to be more specific, being manipulated and being manipulative) is no longer some ‘mistake’, it is actually the raison d’etre for your existence, and why your owners/funders keep you afloat as a going concern.
Let’s be clear about this, newspapers are not particularly profitable. If it is simply about straightforward profitable investments, owners/shareholders can get much better returns if they invest in a myriad of other businesses. Media houses, and especially newspapers, are not good businesses in themselves, but as shapers of public opinion, they can be very important and useful in creating a conducive environment for other businesses to prosper.
This is a reality every newspaper editor is confronted with, and very few – if any – survive if they do not ‘play along’, so to speak. Being in an increasingly marginal (and often non-profitable) enterprise, squeezed from all sides by high costs, and readers rather consuming social media, the space for ‘editorial independence’ and ‘objectivity’ has whittled away with a fast disappearing, or already non-existent, profits.
Thus, dependence and servanthood have become the order of the day. No newsroom has escaped ‘restructuring’ with its concomitant reduction in staff and the ‘juniorisation’ of newsroom staff. Investigative and research capabilities are now almost non-existent, and in its wake has come top-down instructions from the editor and his/her immediate senior news editors to junior journalists about how a story should be framed and presented.
Editors know and live this reality every day, they simply have to abide by it or otherwise they will be jobless, joining the newspaper vendors and beggars on the already overcrowded street corners of our cities.
You serve your masters (i.e. the owners/shareholders of your newspaper) or otherwise, you are shipped out. This is no different for Bongani Siqoko, the editor of the Sunday Times. In fact even more so than most, because of the Sunday Times’ almost psychophantic embrace, in slavish pursuance of their owners the Tiso Black Star Group, of the interests and causes of the dominant White Monopoly Capitalist class and their agents.
Of course, it is part of the cynical ‘game’ never to acknowledge this reality. The angelic mask of ‘editorial independence’ must always be paid lip-service to, no matter how badly it slips and fails to conceal the face of the ruthless capitalist powers behind it.
It was no different when this writer had a meeting with Siqoko, after having participated in a protest picket with the MK Inukululeko Foundation outside the head office of the Tiso Black Star Group, about the manner in which the Sunday Times was narrowing ‘state capture’ down to only the Gupta family, and the last few years since they arrived in South Africa.
In addition, we also protested about the numerous fake stories that the Sunday Times published about Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s, including that she had a house at Nkandla and totally unproved allegations of funding by alleged cigarette smugglers. There were also the front-page photos of a palatial house in Dubai, that one Sunday apparently belonged to Guptas, the next to Duduzane Zuma, and a few Sundays later to former President Jacob Zuma.
Siqoko invited me to his office for coffee, and when I raised these stories and others, he insisted with a straight face that the Sunday Times does its research, and “does not publish lies”! Even the ruling by the Press Ombudsman that the story about Dr Dlamini Zuma having a residence at Nkandla was untrue, which he actually had to retract and apologize for, could not get Siqoko to acknowledge to me that they may just, perhaps, sometimes err! As I have said: It is part of the game never to acknowledge, and always to deny … Well, at least for as long as it serves the interests of your paymasters …
Somewhere along the way, some reporters at the Sunday Times seem to have become somewhat too independent and enthusiastic about their work. Stories that initially served the paymasters of the Sunday Times well became damaging when circumstances changed, and it became evident that a different angle would serve their interests better. Adjustments had to be made for political and commercial reasons. When some of these journalists refused to budge, they unceremoniously got thrown under the bus by their very own editor. They became collateral damage for the ‘greater good’ of survival in subservience to the paymasters.
An interview that one of them, Piet Rampedi, gave to Thabiso TT Tema of PowerFM, makes for interesting listening. Rampedi remains convinced, and is able to coherently argue his case, that the SARS Rogue Unit indeed existed, and that the Sunday Times decided to follow a different narrative of denial about the existence of that unit, once the power dynamics and concomitant interests of its owners changed with the return of Pravin Gordhan to the position of Minister of Finance.
It must be remembered that no-one has taken the advocate Sikhakhane report on the review. Also, except for the somersault done by Kroon, no-one has taken the judge Kroon report on a review either. There is a court case sitting in Pretoria about the SARS Rogue Unit, but the Sunday Times is now, together with the rest of the mainstream media, not sensationally reporting about it. Instead, they are actually mounting a public defence on behalf of the accused
Rampedi advanced these, and more facts, in his letter of resignation to Siqoko. He insists that a deal had been struck to accommodate the changed political landscape with the return of Gordhan as Minister of Finance, and argues that this is a betrayal of him as a journalist pursuing the truth, as well as a betrayal of the public’s right to know the truth, for commercial and politically expedient reasons.
Space does not allow me to quote Rampedi’s resignation letter in more detail, but he has now posted that letter to Siqoko on twitter, and readers are urged to acquaint themselves with it. It certainly makes for interesting reading and raises very disturbing questions about the conduct of the Sunday Times, and specifically, it’s editor.
To this writer’s mind, the moral of the story is that the Sunday Times actually has no morals, and is devoid of any journalistic ethics. Even when it presents itself as virtuous and apparently ‘honorable’, complaining that they have been ‘misled’, and disown stories that no longer serve the changed interests of their psymasters, it is simply a cynical ploy.
As much as they were more than willing to be lead (NOT mislead) to push a particular narrative that served the interests of their powerful owners, they are now again lead to push the counter-narrative because it serves their current interests.
The Sunday Times has become the full incarnation of the logic of what John Swinton wrote about. Yes, indeed: “the jumping-jacks. They pull the string and we dance. Our time, our talents, our lives, our possibilities, are all the property of other men”. – Intellectual prostitutes for whom there are no facts or truths, or even a semblance of objectivity, only interests and objectives.
State capture Sunday after Sunday had to be deliberately narrowed down to a ridiculously short and a-historical period, only relating to the conduct of one emigrant Indian family and their associates, obscuring the reality of centuries of white monopoly capital capture of the South African economy. One man – Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma – had to be relentlessly vilified and kept responsible for all the ills of South African society, ignoring and covering up the consequences of centuries of racist and white capitalist subjugation of the black majority (especially African) South Africans.
They published downright lies about the largest black church in South Africa, the ZCC and their leader. The very real disastrous tragedy of the financial mismanagement (and probably serious crimes) at VBS, South Africa’s only black-owned bank, was presented on the front page of the Sunday Times with screaming headlines of “Shameless” and “Looting”, but when the whites of Steinhoff have done the same, and worse, it was dealt with in the inside financial section as “accounting irregularities”. Thus a fake “plot against President Ramaphosa” story had to be conjured up with the Secretary-General of the ANC, Ace Magashule, as the main target, because his support for Radical Economic Transformation (RET) irks white monopoly capital.
All of this and much, much more are spewed out Sunday after Sunday on the front pages of the Sunday Times, in the slavish pursuance of the interests of their (pay) masters. The topics may change, the particular angles of the stories may change, or even as interest change may be spun around by 360 degrees. Even turned from one Sunday to the next right onto their very heads!
The only thing that remains constant is the protection of the centuries-long brutal exploitative interests of monopoly capital in South Africa, which continues to be overwhelmingly white and racist. So what are we, the reading public, then to make of the Sunday Times? Once we understand this reality they stand exposed before us: Naked, decrepit and lecherous. The only question remains, why should we continue to buy such a rag?
This article first appeared on VOICES 360